An Inferno for Our Times?
Abandon all hope, you who seek Dante here.


Although skillful and clever throughout, Dan Brown’s Inferno is finally more of a gateway argument on behalf of population control than a simple thriller about Dante, Florence, or bioterror. Considered as a whole, the novel serves as something like a “gateway to the Posthuman age,” as the seeming villain of the novel says when describing the goal of his plot. While the gateways in Dante lead either to Hell and self-knowledge or to Mount Purgatorio and a climb to the stars, this novel leads the reader into a brave new world of genetic engineering and suggests that we embrace the new means required to “save the world,” even if we find them “uncomfortable.”

As the novel opens, Robert Langdon, Brown’s professor hero, awakens dazed and confused in an Italian hospital. When an apparent assassin arrives to kill him, Langdon flees for his life with a doctor, Sienna Brooks, and right into the middle of a new Dan Brown mystery.

Langdon soon learns that a visionary genetic scientist, Bertrand Zobrist, a self-styled “transhumanist” and aficionado of Dante’s Inferno, has prepared a new global virus for release the very next day, though the location of the pandemic’s “ground zero” remains unknown. Will Langdon and others be able to find the location and the virus before it’s too late? The task will require all of Langdon’s wit as he works to decode a variety of clues and communications, all tied to Dante or art history, and cryptically left behind after Zobrist commits suicide in the prologue.

For Zobrist, the pandemic is his last and best “gift” to the world; it is his “Inferno,” his “masterpiece,” his “pride.” Seeing himself as “the glorious savior” of humanity, Zobrist claims to have learned in particular from Dante’s Inferno the need we all have to pass through “hell” to arrive at a better state of being, a new “Renaissance.” Zobrist understands himself as the true lover of humanity, possessed of a holy wisdom and a courage that few possess: “If I could hold aloft my flaming heart,” Zobrist declares in the final message recorded before his suicide, “you would see I am overflowing with love.” Zobrist is, in his mind’s eye, the true teacher of love.

Recounted in swift, four- or five-page chapters, the novel’s plot surges forward puzzle by puzzle, mystery by mystery, artifact by artifact. While an entertaining and speedy read, Brown’s book is really much more about “the truth” of the earth’s population problem (graphs are included) than about Dante Alighieri, whose work tends to be mined for details and fresh puzzle material rather than for his wisdom on how to live freely and well. The novel, especially in its concluding chapters, is more interested in confronting Zobrist’s “Population Apocalypse Equation” and exploring responses than in seeking what Dante eventually found through his journey —  “the Love that moves the sun and other stars,” as the last lines of Paradiso sing.

Regarding the novel’s engagement with Dante, the book opens with a master quotation, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.” This quotation, unattributed in the front matter, appears twice more in the book, first in a letter from Zobrist and then in Langdon’s musing epilogue. Who is the source of these words?

Langdon tells us this line is “derived from the work of Dante.” Although the words do not appear in the Inferno, they likely refer to Dante’s treatment of the lukewarm souls in canto 3. These tepid souls, however, are not found in the darkest places of hell but rather reside forever in the vestibule of the pit, stung to motion and chasing an empty banner for eternity. Albert Camus writes unforgettably about these nameless souls in The Fall: “We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.”